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(Reuters) - The stadiums were packed and the fans cheered, but overhanging the Sunday series of National Football League match-ups were continued calls for the ouster of league Commissioner Roger Goodell and outrage over the league's handling of players accused of domestic violence.
Fierce criticism of the NFL has come from the White House, women's rights groups, fans of the games and others, with many calling for the Goodell to step down. Critics cite the NFL's handling of a domestic violence case involving three-time Pro Bowler Ray Rice as well as violent episodes involving other players, including one indicted for hitting his young son.
"We started the week with players beating up women, we ended the week with players beating up children," retired NFL player Tom Jackson said on Sunday during ESPN’s "Sunday NFL Countdown." "We are in a very serious state in the National Football League."
"It is time for Roger Goodell to resign, and for the NFL to get serious about its commitment to ending violence against women within the league," Nita Chaudhary, co-founder of the women's rights group UltraViolet, said in a statement.
Goodell, the NFL commissioner since 2006, has admitted he "didn't get it right" when initially issuing only a two-game suspension and $500,000 fine to punish Rice, a Baltimore Ravens running back, for punching and knocking out a girlfriend who is now his wife.
After a video of the punch surfaced the Ravens released Rice and Goodell issued an indefinite suspension. Rice is expected to appeal the suspension, ESPN reported on Sunday, citing sources.
Goodell has said the league had not seen the video previously but questions remain about what the league knew and when.
President Barack Obama was shocked by the video, his chief of staff Denis McDonough said on Sunday on the NBC program "Meet the Press." The White House had said in a previous statement that "hitting a woman is not something a real man does."
Adding to the league's embarrassment, Minnesota Vikings' star running back Adrian Peterson was arrested on Saturday and charged with injuring his four-year-old son by whipping him on the legs and torso with a switch made from a tree branch. The Vikings deactivated Peterson on Friday immediately after the allegations surfaced.
Amid the uproar, the NFL's Carolina Panthers deactivated defensive end Greg Hardy for Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions, as Hardy appeals a conviction for assaulting his former girlfriend.
The Panthers listed Hardy as inactive in a notice on the team website about two hours before the team's home opener against the Lions, offering no reason for the reversal. Officials could not be reached immediately for comment.
Another player, San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Ray McDonald, was arrested Aug. 31 on suspicion of hitting his pregnant fiance. But McDonald, who has maintained his innocence, played Sunday in the 49ers game against the Chicago Bears. Goodell, who serves at the behest of the NFL team owners, appears to still enjoy their support.
Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder on Saturday became the latest owner to back Goodell's handling of the Rice case.
"Roger Goodell has always had the best interests of football at heart, both on and off the field," Snyder said in the statement on Saturday. "The entire Washington Redskins organization strongly endorses his efforts to eradicate domestic abuse and the independent investigation into the Ray Rice assault."
Goodell has said the league had not seen the tape of Rice punching his then-girlfriend Janay Palmer until it was released by the entertainment website TMZ. But the Associated Press reported that a law enforcement official said the tape was delivered to league officials in April.
Former FBI director Robert Mueller will lead a probe into how the NFL dealt with evidence in the case.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, said on the CBS program "Face the Nation" Sunday that if Goodell lied about when the league saw the second tape "then he has to step down because he won't have the force of authority to change how they address these issues."
Gillibrand is one of 16 senators calling on Goodell to adopt a zero-tolerance policy on domestic violence in the league.
Reporting by Kevin Murphy in Kansas City, Missouri; Writing by Carey Gillam; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Eric Walsh